Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Debate over role of unions opens in China

By Deirdre Griswold
Published Jul 11, 2010 11:33 PM

Strikes at foreign-owned companies in China continue to proliferate.

Factory workers at Mitsumi Electric, a Japanese-owned company, walked out on July 1 demanding a wage increase. Some 30 of the young workers, mostly women, then sat down at the main entrance to the plant, located in northeast China in Tianjin, the sixth-largest city in the country with a population of nearly 12 million.

Even as U.S. business media are starting to warn that, if strikes continue and wages rise in China, some companies will pull out and go elsewhere, the workers’ struggle is gaining sympathy in the Chinese media and among high-level government officials.

A July 2 China Daily report on the Mitsumi walkout explained the workers’ grievances:

“One [worker] told Xinhua News Agency earlier that he received just 1,500 yuan (US$220) a month despite working on Saturdays and putting in two hours of overtime every workday.

“One employee, who declined to be named, told China Daily she earns only 700 yuan per month, which is below Tianjin’s minimum wage. ... The factory is the latest high-profile target in the slow-burning but persistent labor unrest that has been rocking foreign-owned companies, often left vulnerable by their position in complex supply chains and a tightening labor market. ...

“No specific law in China defines strikes as legal or illegal, but it is clear that authorities discourage such activity. However, those who have been taking the risks have been winning rewards.

“Workers in South China’s Honda engine gear factory won a 24-percent wage increase after a two-week strike. Those in Pingmian Textile Group factory in Central China also got a 25-percent pay hike after a two-week strike.

“Liu Kaiming, the executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, said the government should remain neutral whenever there is friction between management and workers.

“‘Local governments in South China generally realize that a crackdown is not the right reaction to a labor dispute,’ Liu said.

“‘It’s one reason the Honda strike could end with an agreement on salary increases. Local governments in Central China should learn from this.’

“There also have been calls to urge Chinese labor unions to play a more active role in protecting workers’ legal rights and improving their wages and working conditions.”

Growth of class antagonisms

This brief mention in the Chinese press of the role of local governments and the official trade unions gives a glimpse of the class struggle going on within the state structures as China’s young workers assert themselves and demand improvements in wages and conditions.

For more than three decades, since adopting a long-term policy of “market socialism,” People’s China has opened up to foreign imperialist investment as a way of acquiring the capital to develop a modern industrial infrastructure and raise the standard of living. It has also allowed Chinese entrepreneurs to open businesses and grow rich. Within the last decade, capitalists have been allowed to join the Communist Party.

The official position is that these warring class interests can be accommodated peacefully within a mixed economy. The state still controls heavy industry, the basic levers of finance and the infrastructure, and is developing the economy according to a centralized plan.

However, especially in the past decade, the wealth gap between the workers and this new bourgeoisie has widened enormously. The presence of millionaires with ready cash has led to widespread corruption of officials and an erosion of the socialist principles on which the Chinese Revolution was based.

Burgeoning working class

At the time of liberation in 1949, China’s working class was a small group in an overwhelmingly peasant country. Just 2.4 million out of 8 million workers were organized into unions.

Since then, the number of workers in China has increased over 35 times.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is the officially recognized organization of the workers. As of 2008 it was the largest labor federation in the world, with 212 million members out of a total workforce of 287 million workers. It represented workers in 3.8 million enterprises. At least 70 percent worked in privately owned enterprises. (www.acftu.org.cn)

In the last two years, unions in the federation have successfully negotiated contracts for workers at a number of foreign-owned companies, including Wal-Mart and Yum Brands (owner of KFC and Pizza Hut), both of them notoriously anti-union U.S. firms.

The recent strikes that have broken out are not officially sanctioned by the ACFTU. However, a debate is raging within China over the federation’s role, particularly with regard to labor disputes.

This is inferred by the disappearance from the federation’s website of documents pertaining to labor disputes and migrant labor. It would appear that its positions on these topics are being revised. But there is also explicit evidence of a vigorous ideological debate among present and former unionists.

A “Position Statement of Old Revolutionaries on the Present Upsurge of Worker Action in China,” issued on June 6, called on the Communist Party, the People’s Congress, the State Council and all compatriots to support the Honda workers’ just struggles and declared that “unions should clearly stand on the side of the working class to represent and uphold the interests of the working class as prescribed by the constitution.” (chinastudygroup.net)

The statement was signed by five well-known “old revolutionaries,” including Han Xiya, former alternate secretary of the Secretariat of the ACFTU.

This statement is very different in tone from reports in the Western media, including both the commercial press and social-democratic leaning publications, which push the building of “independent unions” in China and write off a role for the ACFTU in fighting for the workers’ demands.

In the imperialist press, this dismissal of the ACFTU is often coupled with references to the “independent” Polish union called Solidarity, which became an important vehicle in the counter-revolutionary movement there. Most U.S. unions were caught up in support for Solidarity — which was manipulated by the CIA and led the Polish workers into a trap.

Its celebrated leader, Lech Walesa, was rewarded by becoming president of a capitalist Poland. The shipyard workers he had misrepresented in Gdansk lost their jobs when the yard was bought by imperialist investors, stripped of its equipment and then closed down.

Such “independence” is not what workers striking today in China want.

Next: Where is China heading?
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